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The various brains behind Jasper White's Summer Shack at Mohegan Sun Casino have strived mightily to recreate - in a cavernous space - the festive ambience of a shoreline seafood restaurant, the kind that flourish along the New England coast. Evidence that they largely succeed can be seen on the faces of dozens of bibbed diners cheerfully demolishing their expensive steamed or grilled lobsters. At two nearby tables, I overhead guests discussing past meals, and I assume my partner and I were among the few greenhorns on the night of our visit.
Aside from the amusing mega-blackboards, on which the daily specials are scribbled, and the fish-dock décor, there's not much to look at beside the big menu. As we entered the restaurant through a long corridor, we passed bubbling tanks of seawater where lobsters frolicked in advance of their demise. We also caught a glimpse of the busy kitchen and the equally busy bar.
Small tables for two or four are paired with banquet tables that can seat huge parties or smaller ones broken into groups. If you've been to Durgin Park in Boston, you know the routine.
Given the restaurant's location at the casino, the menu sensibly branches out from seafood to offer steaks, salads, and sandwiches. The ubiquitous Caesar salad is $9 or $19 with grilled shrimp; selections of meats from meatloaf to sirloin range from $16 to $26.
We dispensed with these landlubber options to see how Summer Shack competes in the seafood department. We were thrilled to find Bermuda fish chowder on the menu, since this rustic cousin to the slightly more refined bouillabaisse (also on the menu) never shows up in the states, which is a shame. A bowl ($10) made for a brisk start to our meal.
There was too little of the dish's signature peppery broth (brightened further with a splash of rum), but the shredded crab and fish, and diced vegetables were first rate. A more equitable balance of broth and fish would have made this an authentic Bermuda chowder and something I would have raved about.
Of the menu's Asian-inspired recipes, we enjoyed terrific jumbo fried crab and flounder "spring rolls" ($11). They were served with a typical sweet dipping sauce, and a more memorable cabbage and peanut slaw transformed by the addition of the Southeast Asian fish sauce, nuoc mam.
If only we'd been able to spend the day at the casino. For lunch, we'd have sampled the wood grilled lobster or classic clam bake (both market price, but don't look for a bargain here) or the lobster salad roll ($22).
True to its inspiration, Summer Shack offers a respectable selection of fried fish dishes, as well as a number of grilled fish recipes at market prices.
To sample the kitchen's lobster, we ordered the Cajun-inspired "shrimp, lobster & chouriço gumbo" ($22). I'm no expert on Cajun cooking, but the big bowl of perfectly cooked seafood (how often lobster becomes rubbery when overcooked in stews!) paired beautifully with sharp slices of sausage and mild okra struck us as authentic - it could easily have devolved into a bowl of mushy overcooked ingredients.
Whole-belly fried clams are the only way to go (forget those odious clam strips), and we should have ordered the large plate of fried Ipswich clams ($13/$27) since our superb order of small whole clams in a light crisp crust vanished in seconds. The larger version is paired with slaw and fries, but we liked the tartar sauce that accompanied our plate (although with clams this good, the sauce is superfluous).
We accompanied our gluttony with a comparatively chaste and entirely delicious plate of pencil-thin grilled asparagus bound in a tarragon butter sauce ($8).
The aforementioned cheerful diners seemed to thin out after nine. Jasper White's Summer Shack isn't a place to linger while enjoying stately service and a final few sips of wine … but lingering isn't its point. While the food doesn't erase memories of the best shoreline dining experiences, there's no question of the kitchen's competence. The added bonus? No seagulls to fly off with your food.
Mohegan Sun Casino
1 Mohegan Sun Boulevard
Cuisine: Seafood, steaks, salads.
Atmosphere: Roadside clam shack writ large.
Prices: Cheap to expensive (salads to lobsters).
Reservations: Suggested especially when major entertainers are performing at the casino.
Credit cards: All major credit cards.
Hours: The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dinner is served from 5 on, except for Saturday and Sunday, where it is available from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. An abbreviated late-night menu is served from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Handicapped access: The casino and hotel are fully equipped for handicapped needs; elevators can take guests to the second floor. The restaurant is off the hotel lobby, adjacent to valet drop-off.